Last call for the British & Irish Lions
April 19, 2009
O'Connell may have disappointed in a Lions shirt in 2005 but he is set to lead the elite tourists in South Africa this summer © Getty Images
The waiting is almost over. The British & Irish Lions squad for this summer's tour to South Africa will be announced by tour manager Gerald Davies and coach Ian McGeechan on Tuesday.
The eyes of the rugby world, including those hoping to board the plane in May, will fall on the Sofitel Hotel near Heathrow on the outskirts of London where the eagerly-awaited squad will be revealed - no text messages or courtesy phone calls - dreams will come true live on Sky Sports News.
There will be one exception to that of course, with the captain due to be present for the announcement. Latest reports suggest that man will be Ireland lock Paul O'Connell who is set to get the nod over his compatriot Brian O'Driscoll to lead the elite tourists.
"Generally my preference is to have a captain who is a forward," McGeechan said recently and his desire for a physical presence from the coin toss to the final whistle is likely to see O'Connell become the 10th Irishman to lead the Lions since the Home Unions took charge in 1910.
But what is the likely make-up of the rest of the squad? A decision whether to take 35 or 36 players is still being discussed by the tour management with a handful of those places still reportedly undecided up until this weekend. The word from the Lions coaching team is that the emphasis will be on form not reputation meaning there was still room for some surprises from this weekend's final matches. And with so many Test spots still seemingly up for grabs just getting on that plane could open the door to a career-defining opportunity.
As with these things, those who do not make the grade are likely to generate as many headlines as those who do but whoever does pull on the famous red shirt one thing remains clear - they face a huge task to beat the Springboks on home soil.
The selection game is one that has been played throughout the media and in various on-line forums over the last months and it's now time for my selection. Those who have already seen the Test XV selections of the Scrum.com team will know my preference for the current crop of Irish and Welsh players and that flavour continues in the wider squad but England are also likely to be well-represented.
Starting at fullback, Wales' Lee Byrne has long been pencilled in and as long as he can prove his fitness and conjure his best form he is likely to claim the No.15 shirt for the opening Test. In England's find of the season Delon Armitage, and Ireland's talented Rob Kearney the Lions have to able deputies who also offer kicking and wing options respectively.
My wing selections see all the Home Nations represented starting with arguably Europe's current best winger Tommy Bowe who starred in Ireland's Grand Slam campaign. Alongside him I have kept faith with Wales' Shane Williams who despite failing to live up to his IRB Player of the Year form from last year remains a world-class threat.
Further experience comes in the form of England's Mark Cueto who showed a renewed hunger in the Six Nations while Scottish livewire Thom Evans is an outsider for selection who has shown some exciting potential this year.
Ireland skipper Brian O'Driscoll, the player of this year's Six Nations, will surely be the second name on the team sheet for the big matches after his skipper O'Connell. As to who will partner him the position remains open with Wales' Jamie Roberts, Ireland's Gordon D'Arcy or England's Riki Flutey potential inside centres. But don't rule out Wales' Tom Shanklin switching to the No.12 shirt. A fit Gavin Henson would force his way into the reckoning here but he will have to make do with a place amongst the stand-by players.
At fly-half, Wales' Stephen Jones is edging his Irish counterpart Ronan O'Gara for the Test berth at the moment but with no other specialised No.10s in my squad it would be a shoot-out between the two. That obviously means no place for the England trio of Jonny Wilkinson, Danny Cipriani and Toby Flood.
The backs are completed with Wales' Mike Phillips, Scotland's Mike Blair and England's Harry Ellis set to do battle for the scrum-half berth.
The selections up front will be the key to any success with a ferocious physical battle awaiting the tourists. The outstanding Gethin Jenkins is another assured of a starting Test place as long as he remains unscathed with the Welshman joined by England's Andrew Sheridan as specialised loose-heads. The versatile England veteran Phil Vickery offers options on both sides of the scrum while Scotland's Euan Murray and Ireland's John Hayes complete the propping options.
The second row features the likely skipper O'Connell with Wales Alun Wyn Jones favoured to partner him but may find competition from Ireland's Donncha O'Callaghan, Scotland's Nathan Hines and England's Nick Kennedy. The latter edges out his compatriot Steve Borthwick in my selection and if the lock fails to make the squad he will be the first England skipper to miss out on Lions selection since Phil de Glanville was omitted in 1997.
In the backrow the Lions are blessed with at least two world-class talents. Sadly, Ireland's David Wallace and Wales' Martyn Williams are both opensides by trade but the Irishman may line-up at No.8. The England trio of Tom Rees, Joe Worsley and Tom Croft are also in the mix with Irish stand-out Jamie Heaslip also making my selection. This selection means another big name omission in the form of Wales captain Ryan Jones whose lack of form has seen him drop from a contender for the captaincy to the reserves.
Fullbacks: Lee Byrne (Wales), Delon Armitage (England); Rob Kearney (Ireland);
Wingers: Tommy Bowe, (Ireland), Shane Williams (Wales), Thom Evans (Scotland), Mark Cueto (England)
Centres: Brian O'Driscoll (Ireland), Tom Shanklin (Wales), Riki Flutey (England), Jamie Roberts (Wales); Gordon D'Arcy (Ireland)
Fly-halves: Stephen Jones (Wales), Ronan O'Gara (Ireland)
Scrum-halves: Mike Phillips (Wales), Mike Blair (Scotland), Harry Ellis (England)
Props: Gethin Jenkins (Wales), Andrew Sheridan (England), Phil Vickery (England), John Hayes (Ireland), Euan Murray (Scotland),
Hookers: Jerry Flannery (Ireland), Ross Ford (Scotland), Lee Mears (England)
Locks: Paul O'Connell (Ireland), Nathan Hines (Scotland), Alun Wyn Jones (Wales), Donncha O'Callaghan (Ireland), Nick Kennedy (England);
Backrow: David Wallace (Ireland), Martyn Williams (Wales), Tom Rees (England), Joe Worsley (England), Tom Croft (England), Jamie Heaslip (Ireland).
There you have it - a touring party of 36 with 17 backs, 19 forwards. Ireland and England lead the way in terms of players with 11 each, with Wales providing 9 and Scotland just 5.
Time will tell if McGeechan - and his coaching team of Shaun Edwards, Rob Howley and Graham Rowntree - are thinking the same way.
Stay tuned to Scrum.com for full coverage of the British & Irish Lions squad announcement on Tuesday.